Aubrey Huff

Injury questions loom for Giants in 2012

Guess I picked a good weekend to leave the grid, unplug or whatever term you want to use for what it means to leave electronic devices behind during a 3-day weekend. Sure, my wife and I (at my request) spent Saturday evening in a sports bar in Mendocino so we could experience the joy of watching Tim Lincecum look like Pat Misch wearing a wig. But without phone reception, wireless (the inn we stayed in said there was wi-fi access, only you had to sit in the middle of a garden outside next to a fountain while wearing a hat made of tinfoil during a full moon) or TV, I had to play catchup last night and this morning.

The moral: the Giants should have passed out rally rags on Saturday and Sunday. Or re-upped that deal with Lucifer that expired on November 2. Or both!

The Giants were lucky to finish .500 this year with the offense Brian Sabean put together and the injuries that befell nearly the entire roster. Without perhaps the best combination of four performances in a season by starting pitchers the franchise has ever enjoyed, punctuated by the continued growth of Madison Bumgarner into a future Cy Young candidate, this is a last place team.

With the Diamondbacks in an incredible groove and their NL West lead too huge for anyone capable of rational thought to expect the Giants to overcome, talk has moved to new priorities. Start Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford the rest of the season. Shut down Barry Zito, Jonathan Sanchez and Brian Wilson. See if Brett Pill’s Triple-A power can translate to the Majors.

But if the Giants truly want to contend in 2012 and have a season that lives up to their starting pitching, they can’t fall back on optimism. And that’s not just referring to the way they figured/hoped 2010 heroes like Aubrey Huff, Andres Torres, Cody Ross and Pat Burrell would provide similar production in 2011. Even if they’ve learned that each of those over-30 players can’t be trusted in 2012, they need to be similarly pessimistic when it comes to whether or not the following players are able to recover from their injuries:

Buster Posey: Posey was at the park on Friday night (otherwise known as the Giants’ last stand), and based on what he said and his overall attitude, he seems to feel pretty confident that he’ll be fine by the start of next season. But even Posey doesn’t sound like he’s 100% sure he’ll be able to catch after undergoing ankle surgery. Hopeful, sure. But his ankle was severely damaged, and there’s no tougher position on one’s ankles than catcher.

That said, the Giants need to figure out what they’re going to do next season to keep Posey’s bat in the lineup. Will he start the season as a first baseman? Do they let Posey catch, but rest him every third or fourth game? It’d be nice if he could come back to Spring Training as if the collision at home plate never happened, but that’s the kind of outlook that led the Giants to bring the band back for another run in 2011.

Freddy Sanchez: If losing Posey registered a 10 on a 1-10 scale of crushing losses, Sanchez’s injury at least registered an 8. But the Giants can’t necessarily count on Sanchez to be his old self next season, either. Once a shoulder becomes dislocated once, the chances of that injury recurring increase quite a bit — and Sanchez hasn’t necessarily proven to be a quick healer in the past. While Jeff Keppinger has proven to be a consistent contact hitter, he’s a poor man’s version of Sanchez. The Giants will almost certainly keep Keppinger, but if he’s the full-time starter at second next year the Giants will be noticeably weaker, especially defensively.

Brian Wilson: Ever since a back injury turned into a covert mission to Dr. James Andrews’ office, Wilson has been a ghost. And tossing off flat ground for six or seven minutes every few days doesn’t sound like the actions of a guy who’s ready to shrug off “elbow inflammation” and come back firing. It’s hard to imagine he’ll be back this season, and at this point it makes sense to let his elbow rest.

Next year, the worry becomes whether Wilson can bounce back from a relatively productive season, but one where he lost velocity and dealt with several nagging injuries. 2-inning saves are probably a thing of the past for Wilson, and if there’s more wrong with his elbow than the Giants are letting on, those calling for Sergio Romo to get a shot to be the closer may get their wish. Unless…

Sergio Romo: Call me cynical, but even though Romo bounced back quickly from his own bout with elbow soreness, his elbow was sore. Since Romo has come back and had a couple productive outings after returning from the DL nobody’s too worried about his future, but elbow pain rarely occurs in a vacuum. Counting on an injury-free 2012 from each of the Giants’ two best relievers constitutes the same type of optimistic thinking that led to the team’s offensive failures in 2011.

Aubrey Huff and Brandon Belt: No physical maladies here, but each first baseman suffered mental bruising in 2011 that should give the Giants pause when filling out their 2012 depth chart. Huff proved that there’s a limit to how often you can keep throwing a struggling player out there before he’s a lost cause. Instead of showing Huff the Giants had faith in him, his failures compounded all year long to the point where one has to wonder if his career is effectively over. Simply calling him Bret Saberhagen and banking on the “every other year” theory is, again, too passive of a plan to trust.

A lot of people disagree with me on this, but the way the Giants used Belt as a reality show prop proved disastrous. No, Belt isn’t Freddie Freeman. Maybe Belt wouldn’t have found his way in 2011, even with consistent at-bats at the Major League level and the backing of his manager. But Freeman also didn’t have his tears highlighted on premium cable to start the year. Freeman didn’t suffer the embarrassment of being sent down just a few weeks after making the big club — with his demotion featured on TV. There’s no other way to describe it — how Belt was handled on “The Franchise” was a terrible error by the Giants. Not only did they give the veterans the benefit of the doubt all season, but they protected the vets on the reality show while throwing their admittedly awkward rookie to the wolves. After announcing that using Pablo Sandoval as a marketing prop after one good year was a mistake, one wonders if they learned anything at all considering how Belt was treated.

What do the Giants need to do this off-season? Hard to say if they’ll go after a star like Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder (I’m guessing they’ll try with Pujols, but won’t offer more money than anyone else so he’ll sign elsewhere), but I think Jimmy Rollins is definitely in play. Regardless, the foundation of Sabean’s plan absolutely cannot be to wait for Posey, Freddy and the rest to come back healthy and perform a reenactment of 2010. Sabean needs to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Or better yet, forgetting hoping and just prepare.

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